Gavin Douglas

Gavin Douglas

infobox bishopbiog
name = Gavin Douglas

See = Diocese of Dunkeld
Title = Bishop of Dunkeld
Period = 1515/6 – 1522
consecration = 1516
Predecessor = Andrew Stewart
Successor = Robert Cockburn
post = Provost of St. Giles' | bishops = None
date of birth = 1474
place of birth = Tantallon Castle, East Lothian
date of death = September 1522
place of death = London

Gavin Douglas (c. 1474 – September, 1522) was a Scottish bishop, makar and translator.

Douglas was a prolific writer in Middle Scots. His principal work is the "Eneados", a complete translation of the "Aeneid" of Virgil, which was completed in 1513. Other extant poetry includes his "King Hart" and the "Palice of Honour".

Although still at the height of his powers, Douglas is not known to have produced any further literary work after the "Eneados". This may in part be due to the much changed political scene in Scotland after the Battle of Flodden, also in 1513, and the major power vacuum this left in the Kingdom. In this context, Douglas became heavily involved in affairs of state.

He died in exile in London.

Early life

Gavin (Gawin) Douglas was born c. 1474, at Tantallon Castle, East Lothian, the third son of Archibald, 5th Earl of Angus.

He was a student at St Andrews, 1489-1494, and thereafter, it is supposed, at Paris. In 1496 he obtained the living of Monymusk, Aberdeenshire, and later he became parson of Lynton (mod. East Linton) and rector of Hauch (mod. Prestonkirk), in East Lothian; and about 1501 was preferred to the deanery or provostship of the collegiate church of St Giles, Edinburgh, which he held with his parochial charges. From this date until the Battle of Flodden, in September 1513, he appears to have been occupied with his ecclesiastical duties and literary work. Indeed all the extant writings by which he has earned his place as a poet and translator belong to this period. After the disaster at Flodden he was completely absorbed in public business.

Three weeks after the Battle of Flodden he, still Provost of St Giles, was admitted a burgess of Edinburgh. His father, the "Great Earl," was then the civil provost of the capital. The latter dying soon afterwards (January 1514) in Wigtownshire, where he had gone as justiciar, and his son having been killed at Flodden, the succession fell to Gavin's nephew Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus.

Gavin nephew's marriage

The marriage of this youth to James IV's widow on August 6, 1514 did much to identify the Douglases with the English party in Scotland, as against the French party led by the Duke of Albany, and incidentally to determine the political career of his uncle Gavin. During the first weeks of the queen's sorrow after the battle, Gavin, with one or two colleagues of the council, acted as personal adviser, and it may be taken for granted that he supported the pretensions of the young earl. His own hopes of preferment had been strengthened by the death of many of the higher clergy at Flodden.

Gavin benefits from nephew's marriage

The first outcome of the new connection was his appointment to the Abbacy of Aberbrothwick by the queen regent, before her marriage, probably in June 1514. Soon after the marriage (of Gavin's nephew) she nominated him Archbishop of St Andrews, in succession to William Elphinstone, archbishop-designate. But John Hepburn, prior of St Andrews, having obtained the vote of the chapter, expelled him, and was himself in turn expelled by Andrew Forman, Bishop of Moray, who had been nominated by the pope. In the interval, Douglas's rights in Aberbrothwick had been transferred to James Beaton, Archbishop of Glasgow, and he was now without title or temporality. The breach between the Queen's party and Albany's had widened, and the queen's advisers had begun an intrigue with England, to the end that the royal widow and her young son should be removed to Henry's court. In those deliberations Gavin Douglas took an active part, and for this reason stimulated the opposition which successfully thwarted his preferment.

Bishop of Dunkeld

In January 1515 on the death of George Brown, Bishop of Dunkeld, Douglas's hopes revived. The queen nominated him to the now vacant seat, which he ultimately obtained, though not without trouble. For John Stewart, 2nd Earl of Atholl had forced his brother, Andrew Stewart, prebendary of Craig, upon the chapter, and had put him in possession of the bishop's palace. The queen appealed to the pope and was seconded by her brother of England, with the result that the pope's sanction was obtained on February 18, 1515. Some of the correspondence of Douglas and his friends incident to this transaction was intercepted. When Albany came from France and assumed the regency, these documents and the "purchase" of the bishopric from Rome contrary to statute were made the basis of an attack on Douglas, who was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle, thereafter in St Andrews Castle (under the charge of his old opponent, Prior Hepburn), and later in Dunbar Castle, and again in Edinburgh. The pope's intervention procured his release, after nearly a year's imprisonment. The queen meanwhile had retired to England. After July 1516 Douglas appears to have been in possession of his see, and to have patched up a diplomatic peace with Albany.

On May 17, 1517 the Bishop of Dunkeld proceeded with Albany to France to conduct the negotiations which ended in the Treaty of Rouen. He was back in Scotland towards the end of June. Albany's longer absence in France permitted the partyfaction of the nobles to come to a head in a plot by James Hamilton, 1st Earl of Arran to seize the Earl of Angus, the Queen's husband. The issue of this plot was the well-known fight of "Cleanse the Causeway", in which Gavin Douglas's part stands out in picturesque relief. The triumph over the Hamiltons had an unsettling effect upon the Earl of Angus. He made free of the queen's rents and abducted Lord Traquair's daughter. The Queen set about to obtain a divorce, and used her influence for the return of Albany as a means of undoing her husband's power. Albany's arrival in November 1521, with a large body of French men-at-arms, compelled Angus, with the bishop and others, to flee to the Borders. From this retreat Gavin Douglas was sent by the earl to the English court, to ask for aid against the French party and against the queen, who was reported to be the mistress of the regent. Meanwhile he was deprived of his bishopric, and forced, for safety, to remain in England, where he effected nothing in the interests of his nephew. The declaration of war by England against Scotland, in answer to the recent Franco-Scottish negotiations, prevented his return. His case was further complicated by the libellous animosity of James Beaton, Archbishop of Glasgow (whose life he had saved in the "Cleanse the Causeway" incident), who was anxious to put himself forward and thwart Douglas in the election to the archbishopric of St Andrews, left vacant by the death of Forman.


In 1522 Douglas was stricken by the plague which raged in London, and died at the house of his friend Lord Dacre. During the closing years of exile he was on intimate terms with the historian Polydore Virgil, and one of his last acts was to arrange to give Polydore a corrected version of Major's account of Scottish affairs. Douglas was buried in the church of the Savoy, where a monumental brass (removed from its proper site after the fire in 1864) still records his death and interment.

For Douglas's career see, in addition to the public records and general histories, Bishop Sage's "Life" in Ruddiman's edition, and that by John Small in the first volume of his edition "The Poetical Works of Gavin Douglas" (1874).

Literary work

Douglas is most remembered today for his literary legacy, produced in the period 1501-1513 while he was provost of St Giles. He left four poem manuscripts.


Douglas's principal literary achievement is the "Eneados", his Scots translation of Virgil's "Aeneid", and the first complete translation of a major poem from Classical antiquity in any Anglic language. His translation includes the thirteenth book by Mapheus Vegius and each of the thirteen books is also introduced by an original verse prologue in a variety of subjects and styles. In the first general prologue Douglas compares the merits of Virgil and Chaucer as master poets and attacks Caxton for his inadequate rendering of a French translation of the "Aeneid".

That Douglas undertook this work and that he makes a plea for more accurate scholarship in the translation have been the basis of a prevalent notion that he is a Humanist in spirit and the first exponent of Renaissance doctrine in Scottish literature. Careful study of the text will not support this view. Douglas is in all important respects even more of a medievalist than his contemporaries; and, like Robert Henryson and William Dunbar, strictly a member of the allegorical school and a follower, in the most generous way, of Chaucer's art.

There are several early manuscripts of the "Aeneid" extant: (a) in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, c. 1525, (b) the Elphynstoun manuscript in the library of the University of Edinburgh, c. 1525, (c) the Ruthven manuscript in the same collection, c. 1535, (d) in the library of Lambeth Palace, 1545-1546. The first printed edition appeared in London in 1553. An Edinburgh edition was issued from the press of Thomas Ruddiman in 1710.

Douglas's reputation among modern readers was bolstered somewhat in 1934 when Ezra Pound included several passages of Douglas's "Eneados" in his "ABC of Reading". Comparing Douglas to Chaucer, Pound wrote that "the texture of Gavin's verse is stronger, the resilience greater than Chaucer's". [Ezra Pound, "ABC of Reading" (London: Routledge, 1934; repr. New York: New Directions, 1960), p. 115.] C. S. Lewis was also an admirer of the work: "About Douglas as a translator there may be two opinions; about his "Aeneid" (Prologues and all) as an English book there can be only one. Here a great story is greatly told and set off with original embellishments which are all good—all either delightful or interesting—in their diverse ways." [C. S. Lewis, "English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama", Oxford History of English Literature (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1954), p. 90.]

Palice of Honour

"The Palice of Honour", his earliest work, is a piece of the later type of dream-allegory, extending to over 2000 lines in ninelined stanzas. In its descriptions of the various courts on their way to the palace, and of the poet's adventures--first, when he incautiously slanders the court of Venus, and later when after his pardon he joins in the procession and passes to see the glories of the palace—the poem carries on the literary traditions of the courts of love, as shown especially in the "Romaunt of the Rose" and "The Hous of Fame." The poem is dedicated to James IV, not without some lesson in commendation of virtue and honour. No manuscript of the poem is extant. The earliest known edition (c. 1553) was printed at London by William Copland; an Edinburgh edition, from the press of Henry Charteris, followed in 1579. From certain indications in the latter and the evidence of some odd leaves discovered by David Laing, it has been concluded that there was an earlier Edinburgh edition, which has been ascribed to Thomas Davidson, printer, and dated c. 1540.

King Hart

"King Hart" is another example of the later allegory, and, as such, of higher literary merit. Its subject is human life told in the allegory of King Heart in his castle, surrounded by his five servitors (the senses), Queen. Plesance, Foresight and other courtiers. The poem runs to over 900 lines and is written in eight-lined stanzas. The text is preserved in the Maitland folio manuscript in the Pepysian library, Cambridge. It is not known to have been printed before 1786, when it appeared in Pinkerton's "Ancient Scottish Poemanuscript"


"Conscience" is in four seven-lined stanzas. Its subject is the "conceit" that men first clipped away the "con" from "conscience" and left "science" and "na mair." Then they lost, "sci," and had nothing but "ens" ("that schrew, Riches and geir").

Modern Editions

*"Virgil's Aeneid" translated into Scottish Verse by Gavin Douglas, Bishop of Dunkeld, edited by David F.C. Coldwell, 4 Volumes, Edinburgh, Blackwood for The Scottish Text Society, 1957-64
*"Gavin Douglas: A selection from his Poetry", edited by Sydney Goodsir Smith, Edinburgh, Oliver & Boyd for The Saltire Society, 1959
*"Selections from Gavin Douglas", edited by David F. C. Coldwell, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1964
*"The Shorter Poems of Gavin Douglas", edited by Priscilla J Bawcutt, Edinburgh, Blackwood for The Scottish Text Society, 1967 (reprint 2003)
*"The palis of honoure [by] Gawyne Dowglas", Amsterdam, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum; New York, Da Capo Press, 1969
*"The Makars: the poems of Henryson, Dunbar, and Douglas", edited, introduced, and annotated by J.A. Tasioulas, Edinburgh, Canongate Books, 1999

ee also

*Scottish literature



External links

Primary Sources

*Maxwell, Sir Herbert. "A History of the House of Douglas". II Vols. Freemantle. London, 1902
*Nicholson, Ranald. "Scotland, the Later Middle Ages." Oliver and Boyd. Edinburgh 1978

NAME=Gavin Douglas
SHORT DESCRIPTION=Scottish Churchman, Scholar, Poet
PLACE OF BIRTH=Tantallon Castle, East Lothian

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